The Red Thread of Abuse

Human Rights

There have been human rights abuses enough before, but last year saw "a pervasive culture of attack on global values, standards and institutions," Amnesty International secretary-general Irene Khan told IPS in an interview after the launch of the annual Amnesty report in London Wednesday. "And that has been fuelled very heavily by a security agenda pushed by the U.S."

That agenda has brought a situation where powerful governments can operate outside the rule of law, Khan said, making the fundamental situation in Abu Ghraib so similar to Guantanamo Bay, she said. "There is a red thread that runs from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib to Bagram."

The global security agenda promoted by the U.S. administration "is bankrupt of vision and bereft of principle," Khan said at the launch of the report. "Violating rights at home, turning a blind eye to abuses abroad and using pre-emptive military force where and when it chooses has damaged justice and freedom, and made the world a more dangerous place."

Khan pointed out that Amnesty had handed a report to the U.S. government highlighting abuses within Iraq, but had received no response. "It seems accountability in Washington D.C. is better generated by Kodak." But evidence of the abuses is only "the natural outcome of the policy openly followed by the U.S. administration to pick and choose which bits of international law it will apply and where, and to put itself outside the reach of judicial scrutiny or international accountability."

But it is not the United States alone that is responsible for major violations. The annual Amnesty report says "violence by armed groups and increasing violations by governments have combined to produce the most sustained attack on human rights and international humanitarian law in 50 years."

Amnesty condemned the armed groups responsible for atrocities such as the March 11 bombing in Madrid and the bomb attack on the United Nations building in Iraq on August 19, 2003 which killed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello.

It said attacks on civilians and on institutions established to provide solutions to conflict and insecurity, such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross represent a "significant new threat to international justice."

Abuses were widespread, the report shows. The report details widespread armed conflict in Africa, along with repression of political opponents, persecution of human rights defenders, violence against women, and limited access to justice for the most marginalised in society.

Within the Americas "human rights continued to be violated in the name of security, the report says. "Most governments interpreted the concept of security narrowly, failing to address effectively the threat to human security posed by hunger, poverty, disease, environmental degradation and other such factors." In Asia and the Pacific region "human rights protection remained inadequate across the region and in some countries human rights violations increased as a result of renewed or ongoing armed conflicts," the Amnesty report says. In Europe governments brought in 'anti-terrorist' legislation, launched attacks on refugee protection and imposed restrictions on freedom of association and expression.

In the Middle East the death toll continued to rise with the war on Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Israel and the occupied territories. In these countries and in Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia attacks by armed groups escalated against civilian and government targets.

But a reverse pull seems evident in countering many of the wrongs and unravelling the red thread. "The pictures at Abu Ghraib have shaken public opinion," Khan told IPS. "They have shaken the U.S. Congress. We have asked for an open, independent and impartial inquiry by the U.S. Congress." Finally that pull towards the unravelling could come more from people than from governments. "We are finding new ways in which people are coming together," Khan said. "There is a movement for global justice. We have seen it in Mumbai, in Brazil, in Madrid, where people have come up very spontaneously. Ordinary people believe in human rights, and not that you can cut human rights for security."

The new report, like its earlier reports, raises again the question what exactly Amnesty can do by way of action over its reports.

Amnesty is strengthening its "world-wide web of ordinary people," deputy chief of Amnesty Kate Gilmore told IPS. "Amnesty has the support of two million people, and there are many more who support us tacitly, who are telling their governments that we will not tolerate you being a party to the erosion of global values." The campaign is being fed by the "power of truth and empirical data," she said. Amnesty advocates implementation of international human rights law "but we did not invent it," she said. "Governments made these promises, and Amnesty invites governments to be promise-keepers." Pressure on governments will finally come from ordinary people who set up "a constituency of insistence" for the implementation of rights.

"From the United States to al-Qaeda each is claiming its constituency," Gilmore said. "Amnesty is working with another constituency dedicated to the rights of others, not the self. It is through this constituency that humanity can be advanced."

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